Commentary on Colossians 3:1-11
The last in a four-part series on Colossians, this passage gives practical counsel on how to enact the letter’s theological themes in everyday life.
Using metaphors related to spatial location, and stripping off and putting on clothes, it portrays how we might actually live into our baptismal union with the Messiah’s death and resurrection.
Seek the things that are above
As scholars have noted, Paul’s undisputed letters use temporal terms to depict the call to live into baptismal identity: The Messiah has been “raised from the dead,” thus “walk in newness of life” in light of your future resurrection with him (Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 15:22-23; Philemon 3:10-11). By contrast, Colossians uses spatial metaphors. Presupposing that “you have been raised with the Messiah,” it urges you to “seek” and to “set your mind on” things that are above — where the Messiah is, at the “right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1-2).
However, this reference to what is “above” is not simply a negation of earthly and material existence. Rather, with its messianic allusion in 3:1 to a king-priest standing at the Lord’s “right hand” in Zion (Psalm 110:1), it spotlights how God has already rescued us from destructive powers through the Messiah’s death and resurrection and transferred us to the reign of this beloved Son — even now amid whatever we are facing (Colossians 1:13).
Recall that as the “firstborn of creation,” the Messiah has not only created all things — in heaven and on earth — but also holds them together as the ubiquitous and personal presence of divine Wisdom within all of creation (Colossians 1:15-17; see Proverbs 8; Wisdom 7; Sirach 24). Further, as the “firstborn from the dead,” this Messiah is now the head of the body — the church — and as its beginning has a first place in everything (Colossians 1:18). Indeed, the “entire fullness of deity dwells bodily” in this Messiah and Wisdom of God, in whose death God has reconciled all things — again in heaven and on earth — making us alive together with him so that we, in turn, might come to bodily fullness in him (Colossians 1:19-20; 2:9-10).
Thus, when this passage urges you to “seek” (zeteo) and to “set your minds” (phroneo) on things “above,” it is urging you to further heighten your attention on the Messiah. Amidst whatever is happening to you, become aware of how the Messiah, as the Wisdom of God, not only holds all things together, but also is the one through whom God reconciles all things and raises them to new life.
Live your life as one hidden in the Messiah in God
The writer shifts spatial metaphors in 3:3, from above to within. “You have died” (in your baptism). “Your life is hidden with the Messiah in God.” The mystery, the secret, of your life now lies in the “Messiah in you” (Colossians 1:27).
Moreover, when the truth about this Messiah, who is your life, will be fully “manifested” as the divine Wisdom that permeates the cosmos, then your life — who you really are — will also be “manifested” in this truth (Colossians 3:4).
Of course, divine mystery is different from mysteries about empirical facts (which are resolved once we have all the evidence). The full manifestation of God’s mystery will only continue to unfold “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Filling all with knowledge of God’s loving intentions, it will disclose — with ever-increasing fullness — the spiritual wisdom and understanding needed to perceive our profound connection with God, one another and, indeed, the entire cosmos through the Messiah, God’s Wisdom (see Colossians 1:9).
Strip off dysfunctional and destructive practices
Thus, since your life is already “hidden with the Messiah in God,” shed everything that contradicts “the Messiah in you.” However, when Colossians 3:5 says, “Put to death whatever in you is earthly,” it does not mean repudiating your bodily or material existence. Rather, like the “body of flesh” in Colossians 2:11, “earthly” here refers to all that destructively consumes and corrupts God’s good creation, serving only capricious desires or the interests of a few.
Though you once were possessed by these things, you can now do away with abusive uses of sexuality, moral corruption, evil passions and desires, and greed, which is just another form of idolatry (Colossians 3:5) — and the anger and rage, and mean-spirited, slanderous, and foul-mouthed talk they engender (Colossians 3:7-8). These things only perpetuate dysfunction, creating yet further systemic damage within the biological and social networks that connect us.
Clothe yourselves with a new identity in the Messiah
So, stop lying about who you really are. In baptism, you have stripped off the old self with all its dysfunction and have clothed yourself with a new self, which is continually being renewed as it recognizes more fully that it is, in fact, created in the image of God (Colossians 3:10).
Distinctions based on things like ethnicity, religious practice, level of cultural sophistication, or class no longer define who you are. Instead, you now have an identity that is at once unique and individual — through “the Messiah in you” — and yet profoundly connected, and equal, with everyone else — since “the Messiah is all in all!” (Colossians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 12:13).1
Live as a community held in love
So how does a community — called, and made holy and beloved — live into this new identity? By clothing yourselves, within the very bowels of your being, with compassion, mercy, goodness, true humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:12). Tolerate one another’s idiosyncrasies. If anyone has a complaint against another, be forgiving, just as the Lord has forgiven you (Colossians 3:13).
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together into fullness and maturity. Called into one body, allow the Messiah’s peace to have sway over your hearts. Finally, live in gratitude (Colossians 3:14-15).
- Gender is missing from this list (see Gal 3:28). Note also that Colossians appropriates Roman household codes in 3:18-19 (which subject women to their husbands), in spite of its appropriation of traditions that link the Messiah with the female personification of divine Wisdom throughout the letter. Go figure!